Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent could have played at one of two major tournaments for the USA over the summer, but ended up watching both from home after suffering the first real setback of his fledgling career. So how has he now ended up as the USMNT’s first-choice striker just a few short months later?
Still just 19, the Missouri native was eligible to play at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Poland but was deliberately left out of the roster with a view to helping the senior team at the Gold Cup on home turf. When he was omitted from that squad too, it sent shockwaves around the American soccer community.
"It’s a simple reason: We think [Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes] are ahead of him right now,” head coach Gregg Berhalter explained at the time. “We have to do what we felt was best for the team right now and that’s the decision we made.
"We have to remember that [Josh is] 19 years old and he has a bright future ahead of him. When I talked to him and gave him the news, I mentioned that he is the striker for the national team in the future. We're sure of that."
Fast-forward five months and Berhalter has already been proven right. Far from simply being a self-fulfilling prophecy, Sargent has made the choice inevitable. How has he done it? Quite simply, greater experience – at a higher level – has made him better than his competitors. Sargent is no longer a good player for his age, or for an American. He is a good player, period.
At the end of last season, the Bremen No.19 had only played 205 minutes of senior club football, spread across 10 Bundesliga games. As of Matchday 11 in 2019/20, he has already played 539 minutes over another 10 league matches – more than any other forward at the club. He has two goals and two assists to his name too, including one particularly sublime finish against Augsburg on Matchday 3.
Yet it is not merely his impact in front of goal that has helped him become the main man for club and country; his overall game has improved too.
Watch: Sargent's MD3 Move of the Matchday
"Josh is now at a level where other clubs are looking at him," said Bremen head coach Florian Kohfeldt recently.
"Take the game against Frankfurt [on Matchday 7] as an example: Josh didn't have the best game overall, but there was one bit of play that was just unbelievable and was decisive to the first goal. The run he made was top. [His solo goal] against Augsburg forced the opposition to come out and react, too."
That has translated well onto the international scene too. Sargent has started four of the USA’s last five fixtures – playing in the lone central striker’s role - and has scored three in his last three games, taking his overall tally to five goals in 12 caps. He has been crucial to the US finishing top of CONCACAF Nations League Group A and progressing to the semi-finals, where they will play Honduras in June 2020.
Watch: Sargent, fast becoming a Bremen hero
And what of the compatriots who kept him out of the Gold Cup action? Well, Zardes is still around but with 12 goals in 55 outings for the Stars and Stripes he is not the most prolific, and looks to have fallen behind Sargent in the pecking order. Altidore, meanwhile, has not played for the US since the summer, having missed out due to a calf injury in October and MLS Cup play-off commitments with Toronto FC more recently.
Whether or not the 30-year-old can regain his place remains to be seen, especially as Sargent is the only one of the trio playing in one of the top five European leagues – widely considered the best benchmark in terms of being able to thrive on the international scene.
If Sargent can keep up his current form and all-round displays, however, he is once again likely to make Berhalter’s decision for him.